Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Wednesday, June 8, 2016: Maximum Shelf: Hell Divers


Blackstone Publishing: Hell Divers by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

Blackstone: Hell Divers by Nicholas Smith

Blackstone Publishing: Hell Divers by Nicholas Sansbury Smith Blackstone: Summit by Harry Farthing

Hell Divers

by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

More than two centuries after a catastrophic world war rendered the Earth uninhabitable, the scant remnants of humanity circle the skies in the same mammoth airships used to bomb civilization into oblivion. A fleet of ships once hundreds strong is now reduced to two: the Hive and the Ares, each carrying half of all remaining humans--scarcely over 1,000 souls total.

These ships have been in operation for hundreds of years beyond their originally intended lifespans. Their survival, and the survival of all mankind, depends on the service of a few dozen Hell Divers--brave men and women who jump thousands of feet to the planet's surface to collect the ancient components needed to keep the airships afloat. They must contend with fierce electrical storms, intense radiation and mutant monsters prowling crumbling city ruins. Their motto is simple: "We dive so humanity survives."

Xavier Rodriguez--better known as X--is by far the most accomplished Hell Diver on the Hive. The average diver survives 15 jumps; X has survived 95. Hell Divers opens with X preparing to make his 96th jump while nursing a hangover. It's been a year since he suffered a personal tragedy that, along with the high chance of death on every jump, has led him all too often to the bottom of a bottle of 'shine--a foul makeshift liquor. X has been prematurely aged by his nihilistic partying, the radiation he encounters outside the ship and the radiation permeating the Hive. But he is one of the lucky above-deckers, with his own cramped apartment, adequate rations and plenty of shielding between him and the Hive's nuclear generator. The unskilled lower-deckers cram into communal spaces in the ship's bowels, where cancer and deformities have worsened with every generation.

The lower-deckers are not the only victims of humanity's nuclear-fueled airborne existence. Captain Ash, commander of the Hive and former member of its security force, the Militia, is dying of throat cancer. Much to the dismay of her husband, Captain Ash has refused chemotherapy treatment so she can carry out her duties as long as possible. She vows what by now seems a vain hope--to find a safe place on the surface to land, where humanity can be earthbound once again.

But Captain Ash makes a terrible mistake, one that almost makes X's 96th dive his last: she sends X and his team into an electrical storm. Those team members not killed by lightning strikes on the dive fall victim to a new, even more horrifying threat--eyeless, pale humanoid mutants, wielding razor talons, tons of teeth and a hunger for human flesh. X is the mission's sole survivor. One of his comrades, a friend, has a son, who now falls into X's care. He is a pensive guardian, but the boy, called Tin for the foil hat he wears and his aptitude with electronics, may be just the right responsibility to make X stop drowning himself in 'shine.

Captain Ash gets little time to ruminate on her mistake. She receives a call for help from the Ares--the sister ship is above a wasteland called Hades, an Old World city targeted by so many bombs during the world-ending war that it became a frozen hellscape of radiation, blasting snow and constant electrical storms. Captain Ash can't imagine what desperation led the captain of the Ares to fly over that damned place, but she refuses to stand by and let half of the human race die. She steers the Hive toward Hades, to a dive that will push X and a team of rookie Hell Divers to their limits. Meanwhile, the discontent of the oppressed lower-deckers threatens to reignite a class struggle that led to deadly riots on the Hive just a few years prior.

In Hell Divers, Nicholas Sansbury Smith unleashes post-apocalyptic science-fiction with the pacing of a thriller. He achieves his world-building succinctly, and moves from thrills to chills without the story becoming a mere catalogue of violence, along with tender moments that round out the characters. Hell Divers offers genre fans everything they could ask for, from fresh takes on the post-apocalypse to social commentary reminiscent of Snowpiercer, and plenty of action. The book's swift, tight plotting will also appeal to thriller fans, with a cliffhanger ending that leaves readers suspended mid-air for the rest of a promised trilogy.

Nicholas Sansbury Smith is the author of the five-volume Extinction Cycle series, also post-apocalyptic thrillers, and the Orbs series, science-fiction thrillers about an alien invasion. Before turning to fiction writing, Smith worked for the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in the field of disaster mitigation. Perhaps his career there is part of what makes Smith so good at imagining worst-case scenarios. Whatever his inspiration, Smith has crafted something enthralling with Hell Divers. --Tobias Mutter

Blackstone Publishing, $24.99, hardcover, 9781504725842

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Nicholas Sansbury Smith: Sky-high Dystopia

photo: Zachary Smith

Nicholas Sansbury Smith has written several popular post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels, including the Extinction Cycle series (self-published) and the Orb series (Simon & Shuster). The first volume of a planned trilogy, Hell Divers (Blackstone) tells the tale of the last remnants of humanity, surviving in airships above a ruined Earth. He lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with his family and several rescued animals.

What's your background?

I worked for Homeland Security and Emergency Management for a number of years. I did disaster mitigation planning. That's what inspired me to write post-apocalyptic novels. It's depressing how many ways the world might end. It's something that I've been focusing on in my writing--what people do when that time comes, all the different types of survivors and their personalities. It just fascinates me. Hell Divers is another example of that. It's a little bit different because it's set so much farther into the future than my other books.

What was your approach to building the world of this novel?

Since it's set 250 years into the future, there were a lot of different ways I could take this, but I did want to focus on what life would like on these airships. Are people religious, and are there different religions? How does the economy work? I had to envision what would have happened over these 250 years. There wouldn't be a whole lot left. It would pretty much be what you could grow and barter in terms of selling stuff. Some of the same belief systems would have remained over time; they probably would evolve. I think life would just be a lot darker, and so I tried to reflect that in the characters. Even Tin, the boy Hell Diver Xavier ends up taking care of, grows up knowing that life can end at any moment. With that hanging over your head, you either have to choose to keep going or just give up.

What about the class differences? What was your rationale in creating the haves (upper decks) and the have-nots (lower decks)?

I wanted to have a dystopian outlook on it. In society today, the distribution of wealth is a lot different than it was during the 18th and 19th centuries, with the robber barons. In my future, when power and wealth is in the hands of the few, like it is on the airships, then you're going to have major differences between the two caste-like systems. I wanted the lower deckers to have some sort of revolt, but I wanted it to brew very silently so it wasn't something that just happens overnight. It's a cycle--almost like in Hugh Howey's Wool, where you have different revolts over the years. I also wanted to have a humanist as captain, so Captain Maria Ash understands the plight of the lower deckers. She can relate because of the cancer that she has (most lower deckers get cancer due to the poor shielding from the nuclear engines that power the airships). At the same time, there isn't a whole lot she can do. Her goal is to keep humanity going. In a situation like that, you almost have to pick the lesser of two evils and decide who survives and who doesn't. Otherwise, the human race really goes extinct.

Who is Xavier Rodriguez, the world-weary but duty-bound Hell Diver who must keep going at any cost?

When I was writing his character, I was looking for someone the reader could love and hate. Someone they could relate to and, like I said, someone who was flawed. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but his journey is kind of a journey through hell. He really does believe in humanity. He really does care about the human race even though his character might not seem like it. That's why I had Xavier and his relationship with Tin evolve; in the beginning, Xavier doesn't seem like he cares about a whole lot of stuff. Then he realizes what's important in life again over the course of the book.

Even 10-year-old Tin has a character arc. Where did you draw your inspiration for that? Kids are hard to write.

I tried to give all of the characters' points of view as much page time as possible so they develop and aren't so one-dimensional. With Tin, my inspiration came from my own childhood. I had to think back to how I would feel in situations like his. But then I also had to remember I grew up in a much better place than an airship. It wasn't easy, and my editors have definitely helped. I don't have kids, but my editors who do have kids said, "Eh, this doesn't make sense. Tin wouldn't react this way."

What about the world-ending catastrophe? Was it one nuclear event or were there several things?

I decided not to go into a major explanation of what happens in the book itself.

Because it doesn't matter, right?

Right. At this point, not everyone on the airships understands really what happened. Captain Ash is fascinated and obsessed with figuring out what happened, but there's a scene where she talks about the Hive originally being a lifeboat that was meant to drop bombs. They were designed by the military to be hardened against EMPs. The future of warfare is electronic warfare. We might not have manned jets 10-20 years in the future. We might have more drones, but at that point, I think there's going to be more electronic warfare that can shoot those types of things down. The lifeboats were designed to drop bombs and create an electromagnetic pulse. I don't touch on which countries, who started the war, or who ended the war. I just explained that these were military aircrafts that were designed to withstand an EMP blast. These lifeboats dropped the bombs, but they also picked up the families of the military officers that commanded them. They became lifeboats. The military ended the world, but in a way they saved the last remnants of humanity. There are only two lifeboats left at the start of the novel, 250 years in the future.

In fact, the tubes that the hell divers drop out of to go down to the planet to salvage supplies were the bomb tubes.

Right. They are retrofitted now to drop people instead of bombs.

That's some irony right there. What inspired the monsters on the land?

Again, I wanted to try to make this realistic, so I had to think about what would happen 250 years after these bombs had dropped.

That's a long time for mutations to take hold.

Whatever creatures are down there are going to have to evolve to withstand not only the radiation, but figure out a way to survive. Since it's so dark, I decided the creatures didn't have to have eyes. They wouldn't be able to see anyway, so they use some sort of sonar. The skin and all the other extremities are very leathery. They have these appendages and they move really fast up surfaces. What would it be like down there? What would they have evolved to? How would they move? How would they see? How would they breathe? What would they eat? Some of my inspiration has come from other books, TV shows and movies. --Rob LeFebvre


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